Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, the Democrat nominee, and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt fought a $40 million bitter campaign over the economy, COVID-19 policies, and the legacy of former Gov. Sam Brownback. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, clinging to a slim lead late Tuesday, told cheering supporters she expects to be declared the winner over Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt after the few remaining votes have been counted.
She took the stage at midnight at her watch party in downtown Topeka, flanked by family members — including her infant grandchild in a sunflower print onesie — and Lt. Gov. David Toland.
“I believe today Kansans truly did vote to keep our state moving forward full speed,” Kelly said. “We will not go backward. Kansans voted for strong schools, for economic growth, for balanced budgets. And yes, they voted for a woman’s right to make her own choice.”
On the other side of town, Schmidt wasn’t prepared to accept defeat. The candidates were separated by about 20,000 votes with many of the remaining ballots in rural areas and an unknown number of early mail-in ballots expected to arrive throughout the week.
“We will unfortunately have to wait a bit longer to get the final verdict,” Schmidt told the GOP crowd at a watch party in Topeka. “We will get back to you as soon as we can.”
Kelly hoped to serve a second four-year term after a bitter and costly race in which she sold herself as a “middle of the road” politician who balanced budgets and rebuilt an economy wrecked by her Republican predecessor, former Gov. Sam Brownback. Kelly branded Schmidt as a Brownback confidant who defended corporate income tax cuts and attempts to defund public schools.
By contrast, she celebrated economic investments in the state since 2018, which include landing a $4 billion Panasonic battery plant in De Soto, and a record low unemployment rate.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said campaigns and PACs supporting Kelly and Schmidt spent nearly $40 million on broadcast advertising alone, and millions more on mailers and salaries.
At 12:20 a.m. Wednesday, Kelly held a 49.6% to 47.3% lead over Schmidt with 953,000 votes counted. Independent state Sen. Dennis Pyle, who entered the race to amplify the voice of the far right, had about 2% of the vote, while Libertarian Seth Cordell claimed 1% of the total.
For Kelly, the former state senator who defeated Kris Kobach four years ago, the goal was to hang onto the votes of independents and moderate Republicans who put her in the governor’s office.
“I spoke a lot, maybe too much, about my middle of the road approach, because it’s important and everyone is tired of the hyper partisanship and vitriol in our politics,” Kelly said.
Schmidt’s attempt to unseat Kelly began in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he cast himself as the antidote to intrusive government mandates.
He relentlessly pounded Kelly’s decision to close public schools for two months at the start of the pandemic, and tried to position her as an ally to President Joe Biden. He also highlighted Kelly’s vetoes of tax cuts and legislation that would have banned transgender girls from participating in school sports.
Schmidt recruited high-profile out-of-state Republicans to rally support for his campaign, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And he won the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.
In the closing weeks, Schmidt’s ads featured the endorsement of law enforcement officials. He also falsely claimed that Kelly’s administration had funded a drag show in Wichita — and equated the public performance with pedophilia.
“It’s not going to be called tonight,” Schmidt told supporters Tuesday night. “So I just wanted to come and thank all of you for being out. I cannot tell you how grateful we are for all of the support and friendship we have had in the course of this race.”
The Kansas Republican Party spent nearly $200,000 on broadcast advertising over the last two weeks of the race to make sure voters knew that Democrats were secretly spending money to generate support for Pyle among GOP voters.
A state senator from Hiawatha, Pyle left the Republican Party earlier this year to launch his campaign, which tried to paint Schmidt as being too closely aligned with Kelly to be trusted by true conservatives. Pyle’s “principle over party” pitch to voters included a faith-based, anti-abortion refrain that emphasized border security and support for small businesses.
“I would like to thank those who carried and signed the petition to help me get on the ballot,” Pyle said. “Without them, this opportunity would not have been possible. I want to thank my wife, Jennifer, my family, my running mate, Kathleen Garrison, and fellow patriots who supported our campaign. It is an honor to have had the privilege and opportunity to be a candidate for Kansas governor.”
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